LOS ANGELES -- It began as an innocent conversation between two brothers who had promised not to let the schools they had chosen get in the way of their relationship.
T.J. McDonald, who followed in the footsteps of his father, NFL All-Pro safety Tim McDonald, by attending USC, was taking summer school courses at USC last year. His younger brother Tevin, who had committed to cross-town rival UCLA, was also on campus, attending a football camp at USC.
After T.J. and Tevin were done for the day, they met their father and Tevin shared some good news: One of the players at the camp had said he had decided to go to UCLA instead of USC.
"No, he's not; he's already committed to USC," T.J. shot back. "He told me; he's coming to USC."
"No, T.J.," Tevin said. "I just talked to him today; he said he's coming to UCLA."
T.J. smiled and shook his head and delivered the kind of dismissive, stinging blow only an older brother could deliver.
"They don't get guys like that at UCLA," T.J. said. "What are you talking about?"
Tevin, who chose UCLA after USC failed to strongly recruit him, looked like he wanted to tackle his older brother.
"What are you trying to say?" Tevin said. "What are you trying to say?"
Tim, who was quietly observing the interaction between his sons, finally stepped in and said, "That's enough. Let it be."
Four hours later, Tim and Tevin were driving back home to Fresno when Tevin, who had been quiet the whole drive, finally spoke.
"Dad, I don't like what T.J. said to me. I don't like him saying that," he said. "I didn't think this UCLA-USC thing would come between us but I really don't like what he said."
T.J. and Tevin eventually worked things out and have stayed in constant communication this season by phone and text message, but don't expect them to be exchanging any pleasantries this week before USC plays UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Saturday. Although T.J. is doubtful for the game with an injured shoulder and Tevin is redshirting this season, both players still get passionate when talking about their schools and the rivalry.
"I made a pact with both of them before the season," Tim said. "There are 365 days in a year, but for seven of those days, you don't need to talk each other. You guys have 358 days to be close brothers, but for seven of those days, respect each other's privacy."
Tim made his sons agree to the weeklong separation after seeing how heated they got when talking about their respective schools.
"I think right then and there they were setting the boundaries for what's acceptable and what's not," Tim said.
Tim McDonald never wanted his sons to play football. As he stood on the sidelines and watched T.J. practice at USC last week before driving across town with his wife, Alycia, and daughter, Taryn, to watch Tevin practice at UCLA, he still couldn't believe his two sons decided to play the same sport and the same position he played for 13 seasons in the NFL.
"When I retired from football in 2000, I had 13 surgeries," Tim said. "As a father, knowing how I was feeling at the time, I really didn't want to introduce them to football. My kids were young, so we never really talked about football. I didn't care one bit if they didn't step foot on a football field, knowing how I was feeling after being beat up during a long career."
T.J. and Tevin played baseball growing up. T.J. was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 30th round after his senior year at Edison High School in Fresno, where he batted .418 with 31 RBIs as an outfielder and first baseman.
Shortly after Tim retired, however, T.J. and Tevin became curious about football while watching tape of the bone-jarring hits their dad made on the field for the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers. They weren't interested in playing flag football, though; they wanted to put on helmets and pads and hit like their dad.
"We were living in Fresno and T.J. was in the third grade and Tevin was in the second grade and we were sitting around and T.J. looked up at me and said, 'Dad, we need to move to L.A.,'" Tim said. "I said, 'Why do you want to move to L.A.' He said, 'Because they can play tackle football in L.A.' That was the first time I heard either one of them say they were thinking about playing football."
Tim knew he couldn't hide the sport from them, so he began teaching his sons the proper way to tackle and play the safety position he had mastered during his career. T.J. and Tevin went on to be teammates in Pop Warner football and at Edison, where their father was their coach.
"I think it was pretty tough for them to play for me, but as a dad, I loved being with my sons for four hours a day, working on football," Tim said. "It was a blessing."
T.J. McDonald is used to playing in his father's shadow. He's been doing it his whole life. He went to his dad's high school and is going to his dad's university, and his dream is to one day win a Super Bowl, preferably for the San Francisco 49ers, just like his dad did.
He's never shied away from the comparisons. If anything, he's embraced them and tried to exceed them.
"There's pressure following in his footsteps with him being such a great player, but I chose this path," T.J. said. "I wanted to go to Edison. I wanted to go to USC. I chose to be where he was at. I could have gone elsewhere but I wanted to be here and fill his shoes."
After spring practice this year, Tim sat down with T.J. at their home in Fresno and spent days on end watching old tapes of Tim and new ones of T.J. They didn't break down the film from a technique perspective. Rather, they went over what they were thinking on each play.
T.J. noticed the mistakes he made as a college freshman, and Tim showed him some of the cerebral plays he made as an NFL veteran.
"He spent a lot of time NFL locker rooms growing up," Tim said of T.J. "When I was in San Francisco, Pete Carroll was my defensive coordinator, and T.J. ran through the locker rooms jumping on Pete. He's not intimidated by the pressure."
Through their first two seasons at USC, Tim and T.J.'s statistics are nearly identical. Tim had 97 tackles and four interceptions after a breakout sophomore year, while T.J. has 96 tackles and three interceptions as he nears the end of his breakout sophomore season.
"When you look at some of the things I did my sophomore year in college and T.J.'s sophomore year, it's eerily similar," Tim said. "From tackles to interceptions, all the way down to probation. Hell, when I went to USC we were on probation [1982-83] at the beginning of my career, too."
As Tim watched T.J. go through practice last week, he marveled at the player he has become.
"T.J. is a great athlete. He is faster than I was and can jump higher. I knew what he was capable of," Tim said. "Without being too biased, I think he has the potential to be one of the great players."
It's hard to spot Tevin McDonald at UCLA's practice in the shadows of Pauley Pavilion. As a scout team member his jersey number changes from week to week depending on the opponent. He's played every position in the defensive backfield this season helping the offense prepare for their next opponent. His assignment this week is to mirror his brother's playmaking ability on defense. It's the easiest assignment he's had all season. There's no need to review film of what he's lived with for the past 18 years.
While Tevin didn't dream of going to UCLA growing up, he said he didn't grow up longing to go to USC as much as his brother did.
"I took a trip to UCLA my junior year and really fell in love with it," Tevin said. "To be honest, USC didn't show much interest in me, which made the decision easy for me. I knew I wanted to stay in California but I also wanted to be different. I didn't want to go to USC and be T.J.'s little brother. Now I'm at UCLA and I'm Tevin McDonald. I'm not Tim's son or T.J.'s little brother, and I know that would have been the story if I went to USC."
As much as it pains Tim to go to UCLA to watch his son practice and cheer for the Bruins on Saturday, he encouraged Tevin to go to UCLA when he saw how little USC was recruiting him.
"I was surprised he wasn't recruited hard by USC," Tim said, adding, "He wasn't going to wait around. He made up his mind before his senior year. Tevin wanted to be his own man, and I was happy for him."
Although Tevin would like to be contributing more to the team than mimicking opposing defenses during the week, he also realizes his father and brother didn't hit their stride as players in college until their second years, something he is planning to do next year as a redshirt freshman.
"Everybody sees what kind of year my brother is having and the expectation is for me to follow in his footsteps and I realize that," he said. "I've been dealing with that my whole life. I don't think I have anything to prove but I plan on having a great year and I know the sky's the limit for me."
T.J. and Tevin McDonald have never walked onto the same football field wearing different jerseys. They've never stood on opposite sidelines or gone to separate locker rooms after a game. They knew this day would come when Tevin committed to UCLA and T.J. looked at him and smiled. "It had to be UCLA, didn't it?" he said.
"We've never played against each other," Tevin said. "It's going to be different seeing him on the other side. I don't know what it's going to be like."
"It hasn't really hit me yet," T.J. said. "I know that day is coming and it's going be different but I've tried not to think about it."
Tim, who plans on wearing T.J.'s USC jersey with Tevin's No. 12 on it, said said the McDonald family would be Los Angeles fans Saturday, simply hoping for a good game, before stopping midsentence and admitting that even as the father of a UCLA player, he had to follow the one piece of advice he has always given T.J. and Tevin.
"The one thing I've always talked to my sons about is being true to yourself and having integrity, and I tell them both you don't compromise that for anyone," Tim said. "I love Tevin but I'm a Trojan. I went to USC. I love USC. I'm a Trojan and I always will be."
Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.